Spanish Practices

Edwin Williamson

  • Collected Poems 1957-1987 by Octavio Paz and Eliot Weinberger
    Carcanet, 669 pp, £25.00, October 1988, ISBN 0 85635 787 1
  • Sor Juana: Her Life and her World by Octavio Paz, translated by Margaret Sayers Peden
    Faber, 547 pp, £27.50, November 1988, ISBN 0 571 15399 2
  • A Sor Juana Anthology translated by Alan Trueblood, with a foreword by Octavio Paz
    Harvard, 248 pp, £23.95, September 1988, ISBN 0 674 82120 3

Octavio Paz occupies a unique position in the Spanish-speaking world. He is the foremost living poet of the language as well as being one of the most authoritative interpreters of the Hispanic situation, a pensador in the tradition of Unamuno, Ortega y Gasset, Rodo and Mariategui. Poetry, however, has always been the vital source of his ideas. His work as cultural historian, political essayist and editor of Vuelta, the most influential journal in Latin America today, is rooted in his belief that the poetic conscience must be brought to bear on the central issues of contemporary history. The Collected Poems brings together for the first time Paz’s mature work in a splendidly produced bilingual edition. Over half of the poems have not been rendered into English before and it is very gratifying to find here the most recent collection, the superb A Tree Within, which came out in 1987. This book is something of a coup by Carcanet.

The collection begins appropriately with Sunstone, an extended reverie which incorporates the sum of his poetic experience until 1957. The title refers to an Aztec calendar stone whose cycle of 584 days is reflected in the number of lines of the poem. This correlation evinces Paz’s perennial concern to escape contingency by looking for a mythic dimension to personal experience. The Surrealist influence – his friendship with André Breton in the late Forties left an indelible mark on his poetry – is evident in the visionary intensity of the language. But despite its oneiric strangeness, the poem describes a purposeful quest for a fullness of being which time routinely denies the poet except for intermittent epiphanies granted him in the love of woman, the universal ‘other’. The poem undulates through successive states of consciousness, interweaving memories of war and atrocity with personal recollections of people, places and events. Impelled by its own inner momentum, its flow is punctuated by sudden spasms of joy until it eventually finds its way back to the beginning:

       a course of a river that turns, moves on,
doubles back, and comes full circle,
forever arriving.

These lines repeat the opening sequence of metaphors and, ending with a colon, trace an image of history as eternal recurrence, though ‘forever arriving’, lacking the final spurting rhythm of y llega siempre, fails to capture the narrowness of this victory over the contingent and the terminal.

Salvation for history through love and poetry was to remain the romantic heart of Paz’s enterprise. From 1959, when he returned to live in Paris, the search for pure being was extended under the influence of Mallarmé, from whom he derived a metaphysics of the poetic word as a primal reality buried under layers of dead language. The desire to cleanse the word from the slime of functional usage led to experiments with phonic resonance – intensive punning and internal rhyme – and typographical layout: spaced-out lines, stanzas suspended in mid-page, counterpointed islets of text, with the odd word exiled to a margin. Such experiments can be seen at their most radical in Topoemas (1968), a cross between Apollinaire’s calligrammes and oriental ideograms.

Though the linear text remained the norm, Paz would continue to break up or displace lines to allow white spaces to show through, creating a pleasing effect of airiness which corresponded graphically to his belief in the transcendent potential of poetic language. Indeed, at their best, Paz’s disjointed texts read with the freshness of a breeze: words appear to have been swept up by a wave of air and relieved of their burden of reference, to circulate in some undetermined space between the material world and whatever might lie beyond it. When they fail to come off, such poems are like arrested mobiles, with inert images hanging off a predictable set of ideas.

The mystical strain was more fully developed after 1962, when Paz became Mexican Ambassador in India for six years. His reactions to a new landscape and a new human reality are recorded in East Slope (1962-1968), a miscellany ranging from snapshots of nature or ironic sketches of social types to long meditations prompted by monuments and places where, surprisingly, as in ‘Happiness in Herat’, the quietism of Hindu mysticism is rejected for a more dynamic vision of a natural world transfigured into the ‘perfection of the finite’. In the East, Paz recognises the Europeanness of his heritage as a Mexican: he refuses to discount material reality in the quest for plenitude of being.

Perhaps for this reason, he was drawn to the sacred eroticism of Tantric rites. The major works of his Indian interlude are indeed love poems. It was in India that he met his second wife and there that he most fully deployed his extraordinary powers of evoking sexual union in language that fuses exhilarated sensuality with religious awe. Eroticism and Mallarméan experimentation are combined in Blanco (1966), the most ambitious poem of this period. Conceived as a sort of verbal kaleidoscope, it consists of 14 texts that can be read separately or in a variety of interlocking permutations. The aim is to generate a changing interplay of images and rhythms that will figure forth the oppositions and polarities that divide consciousness, and whose reconciliation is achieved only in the ecstatic moment of erotic fulfilment:

         No and Yes
together
       two syllables in love

Blanco now seems to be too beholden to the vapid spirituality of the Sixties to convince in its entirety. But the headiness of the Indian years did not distract Paz from the grim realities of history. In 1968 he resigned his post as ambassador in protest at the massacre by government troops of several hundred student demonstrators at Tlatelolco before the Olympic Games were due to open in Mexico City.

Back in Mexico, he began his intellectual journey to discover a new political ethic for Latin America. Return (1969-1975) contains poems of terrible desolation:

the blind in combat beneath the noon sun
                             thirst panting anger
beating each other with rocks
                 the blind are beating each other
the men are crushing
                          the stones are crushing
within there is a water we drink
                                      bitter water
water whetting thirst
                        where is the other water?

In this harsh wasteland the poet must find the resources to avoid becoming a ‘gardener of epitaphs’. The two masterpieces of these years are ‘San Ildefonso Nocturne’ and A Draft of Shadows (1974). Both reflect upon his own childhood – a new preoccupation – and on the ghastly proliferation of Mexico City, which had devoured the village where he was born and raised. Paz is forced back into an inner world:

I close my eyes,
                I hear in my skull
the footsteps of my blood,
                I hear
time pass through my temples.
                I am still alive.

Sheltering in that last redoubt, yet perturbed by the strange allure of death, he finally submits to the ‘errant clarity’ of the Moon, and contemplating his sleeping wife (‘she too is a moon’), brings his poem to an end by placing his trust in the woman’s ‘quiet flowing’. Attenuated now from what it was in Sunstone, his faith in woman as the saving ‘other’ still serves to overcome despair and the obliteration of the cherished landmarks of childhood.

A Draft of Shadows, one of his most moving compositions, begins by alluding once more to those ‘footsteps in the mind’ which tread

the path of echoes
that memory invents and erases.

A long complex poem about the substance of personal identity, it has none of the attitudinising which sometimes mars the earlier works. There are intimations of a divine presence, a ‘bodiless god’ who refuses to be named in ‘the language of the body’. This realisation cuts the poet down to size: his poem is nothing but

air that sculpts itself and dissolves,
a fleeting allegory of true names.

Yet if this is all that can be expected of poetry, it is also the sum of what can be salvaged from the ruin of time, for the self is simply ‘the shadow my words cast’. Released now from his anxiety to be a hierophantic visionary, Paz accepts the humbler calling of a mere boxer of shadow-words. His reward is the discovery of a new voice.

In ‘A Tree Within’, the brief but charming title-poem of his latest collection (1976-1987), the poet tells how he felt a tree growing inside him, lighting up his whole body. Paz’s new voice is gentler, more accepting of the world as it is, yet suffused with the roguish humour of a man entering old age who has come across a garden, not of epitaphs, but of images and sensations that repeat the ‘great exclamation with which the world begins each day’. He now writes in a well-modulated, unforced, surrealist manner, with graceful clarity and no perceptible loss of the power to strike beautiful images, as in the surprisingly coltish ‘The Dryad War’, with its sparkling stream of fancies, or in the unerring metaphors of ‘A Fable of Joan Miró’. The advent of death is contemplated with a serenity that commands respect. In ‘A Small Variation’ his last moment is imagined as one of those instants of communion which have formed the axes of his life as a poet, an instant which

opens under my feet
and closes over me and is pure time.

The translations are intelligent and faithful, on the whole. But there are inexplicable lapses: nudo de aullidos is a ‘knot of howls’ rather than a ‘howling nude’; there is no ‘mirage’ in una mirada de siete manos – it is ‘a look with seven hands’. Spanish idioms are very occasionally misread: for instance, por dónde anda Joan Miró’ is ‘where can Joan Miró be?’ and not ‘where are you going Joan Miró?’ These are minor blemishes, however, when one considers what a boon it is to have the mature poetry of Paz available in English.

With Sor Juana one is invited to explore new avenues of the labyrinth of solitude, to use the metaphor invented by Paz to describe the conflicts of identity suffered by Mexicans. Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz was a Mexican nun and a major Baroque poet, celebrated as the Tenth Muse in her day. In the 20th century, however, the life of this enigmatic figure has become a mirror which reflects Mexico’s divided image of itself. Catholic scholars regard her as an exemplary daughter of the Church who finally renounced secular learning for the love of God. To anti-clerical nationalists she is a Creole butterfly broken on the wheel of Spanish fanaticism. More recently, she has been seen as a remote precursor of feminism who was crushed by a patriarchal society.

Born in 1648, in a village near Mexico City, Juana Inés Ramírez de Asbaje was the illegitimate daughter of a Creole mother and a Spaniard of whom nothing is known. When she was about fifteen, Juana was presented by wealthy relatives at the Viceregal court, where she entered the service of the Vicereine, who encouraged her love of books and poetry. At twenty, she entered the convent of San Jerónimo in Mexico City, where she remained until her death. During that time Sor Juana established herself as the leading poet in the Hispanic world, writing with great technical mastery in all the established genres, including verse drama and the auto sacramental. Though confined to her convent, she remained an adroit player in the complicated game of court politics, retaining the favour of successive viceroys and, in the case of the beautiful Vicereine, the Countess de Paredes, conducting a friendship whose intensity she at times expressed in poems charged with erotic language. Yet at the height of her fame she attracted censure from certain ecclesiastical authorities for her worldly interests. At first, she justified herself and defended women’s right to pursue learning, but only two years after this she renounced her literary career and dedicated herself to prayer, dying shortly afterwards during the plague of 1695.

Octavio Paz has rightly seen that Sor Juana’s fate cannot be understood apart from the society in which she lived. The picture he paints of colonial Mexico is far removed from the stereotype of a priest-ridden tyranny created by the promoters of the ‘black legend’ of Spain. It was a stable and fairly prosperous society where authority was exercised not so much by force as by virtue of the formidable loyalty that both Crown and Church could command from people of all races and classes. For instance, in 1692 the most serious rioting ever to occur in Mexico City during the colonial period was quelled when priests emerged from the cathedral bearing aloft the Blessed Sacrament in solemn procession. Power in the Church and in the government was not monolithic, but diffused through a variety of competing offices and institutions. Nor was it monopolised by Spaniards: the native-born Creoles had access to the highest positions except that of viceroy.

This dispersal of power may account for New Spain’s remarkable tolerance of personal aberrations – so long as the basic principles of the established order were not called into question. Juana’s bastardy was no impediment to her acceptance at court. Her mother had six children by two men, neither of whom was her husband, yet she was still able to make respectable marriages for her daughters, who themselves were to have children out of wedlock and live openly with their lovers. Illegitimacy did not prevent the offspring of these unions from finding positions in the Church, the military and the university. What is more, despite living in a male-dominated society, women were able to assume control over economic enterprises: Juana’s mother managed a sizeable hacienda for over thirty years.

Against this background, Paz builds up an explanation for the two turning-points in Juana’s life. She took the veil because the convent afforded her the best conditions to cultivate her love of poetry and scholarship. San Jerónimo was a very social convent, where well-to-do women of a religious bent could withdraw from the world taking their maidservants and slaves with them to live in a cell which in reality was more like a suite of rooms. There Sor Juana flourished as a grand literary hostess.

Aficionados of the grotesque, however, need not be dismayed by the mildness of this picture of colonial Mexico. There subsisted an underlying zealotry and sexual hysteria which were liable to flare up in times of crisis. The 1692 riot, which was settled by the intervention of the Church, weakened the Viceroy, Sor Juana’s protector, and strengthened the hand of her enemy the Archbishop. Not long before this, Juana had unwisely criticised a famous Jesuit admired by the Archbishop, and she became the target of veiled attacks by powerful clerics. After the riot, she found herself suddenly alone and exposed to the wrath of misogynist prelates. She then submitted to her Jesuit confessor and gave up her books, signing her renunciation of the world in her own blood. During the epidemic that broke out two years later, the sisters carried out acts of expiation, such as collective flagellation and the licking of the paved floor of the convent to form the sign of a large cross.

Octavio Paz presents a perfectly adequate account of Sor Juana’s downfall: a woman of great influence, she allowed herself to be caught up in the kind of power struggle that takes place at the top of any society, and she lost. But even though he goes to great lengths to understand the society of New Spain – and this book certainly has its longueurs – Paz is determined to turn Sor Juana into a Creole martyr. A case is made out for regarding her masterpiece ‘First Dream’ as the expression of an intellectual yearning for the kind of scientific inquiry prohibited by Counter-Reformation Spain.

He sees a ‘correspondence’ – a poetic term employed rather defensively by Paz – between Sor Juana’s situation and that of the mostly Indian rioters of 1692 who rose against an unpopular viceroy at a time of exceptional crop-failure. Both are said to reveal the lack of modern political ideas which could have led to a project of reform. Paz observes of Sor Juana that she colluded with her oppressors. It may be that he underestimates the depth of the attachment to the Catholic monarchy in New Spain, among Creoles and Indians alike.

There is something unresolved at the heart of this book. Paz is ambivalent about the colonial past: ‘Despite the kind of gilded paralysis in which it lived, New Spain reached levels of achievement that we, its descendants, have not surpassed.’ On the other hand, he is in two minds about the fruits of that progress which Spain is supposed to have blocked for her American subjects: ‘Progress has become synonymous with death.’ Such oscillations between tradition and modernity no doubt result in the dualities and contradictions which have bedevilled the formation of a coherent identity for modern Mexico. In this fine, absorbing study of a much distorted period of Mexican history, as in his other essays, Octavio Paz has analysed better than anyone the instability of that condition. As a poet he has repeatedly expressed the desire to transcend it.

         No and Yes
together
       two syllables in love.

That instant of communion could be taken to prefigure a final release from the labyrinth of solitude.

Originally proposed by Octavio Paz, A Sor Juana Anthology presents a selection of the Mexican nun’s work in excellent versions by Alan Trueblood. It successfully reflects the versatility of Sor Juana, whose styles range from spirited popular lyrics, some incorporating snatches of Nahuatl or Afro-Spanish refrains, to the learned conceits of her full-blown Gongorist manner. Particularly valuable for the light they shed on the quality of Sor Juana’s mind are the skilful versions of ‘First Dream’ and of ‘Reply to Sor Philothea’, the prose letter in which she defends women’s right to learning.